Being a fan can be frustrating as all get out sometimes. One minute the object of your affections is bumbling along, doing absolutely nothing of note whatsoever. The next they plumb such awful depths of – well, awful – that you find yourself questioning why you spend so much of your life invested in them. Suddenly they do something sky-scrapingly magical. They achieve the greatness you always hoped they were capable of. Your heart is in your mouth. You punch the air. You howl with joy. Your entire faith is vindicated.
So it is with Doctor Who. Following last week’s shambles – an episode so terribly mundane and drab that I genuinely couldn’t bring myself to write anything nice (thank god for Cathode Ray Tube and their sterling efforts to find gold amongst the ruins), The Doctor’s Wife (BBC1, Saturday) was everything I ever wanted my favourite television show to be. Once more, Doctor Who makes me realise why it has a vice-like grip on my heart. Magic was in the air on Saturday night.
This was an episode that could only have been made by the current Moffat / Wenger / Willis team. I genuinely can’t imagine Russell T Davies coming up with anything so eerie, so otherworldly, and that’s not an insult to Russell – or JN-T, Graham Williams or any of the previous production teams. Perhaps Hinchcliffe and Holmes might have hit something similar, but this showcased everything that’s strong, that’s good, that’s absolutely bloody right with what the new gang are doing.
Yet, in forging ahead and producing something brand new and different, Neil Gaiman threaded innumerable little echoes of episodes past, little nods and references (from Russell’s Ood, to the Time Lord Message box, even roundels on the Tardis corridors) that the damn thing felt like the ultimate distillation of Doctor Who. If you’ve ever watched an episode of this show – from any era – there’ll be something in here that reminds you of why you were drawn into it in the first place. This – my friends – is the reason why I stick around. Because every now and then (and it happens more and more often these days) the faith I have in Doctor Who pays off. My best mate strides out onto the pitch in full view of the public and plays an absolute blinder, knocking it right out of the park. Bliss.
It’s amazing to think – Doctor Who has been going since 1963, and not once on screen has anyone come up with a story that goes to the heart of the series. It’s right there in the original concept – a mysterious old man in a rickety old blue police box, wandering the universe. Yet, nobody has ever thought to look at that single concept and poke at it to see what happens.
There are references occasionally to The Tardis being alive. Hartnell does it in The Edge of Destruction. Tom has Leela pay the Ship compliments because her “primitive brain patterns are particularly pleasing to her”. Most of The Doctors refer to her as “Old Girl” or something similar (yet, oddly not Troughton – possibly the most Doctorish of them all, but the one who refuses to indulge in most of the quirks that people would immediately associate with the character). Matt Smith calls her “Dear” in his first appearance. Somehow, this most fundamental and fascinating of concepts slips away. If one man travels through the universe for centuries with a ship that is somehow alive, what sort of bond must there be between them?
Neil Gaiman tackled that particular question head-on and produced a rambunctious and joyous answer. There were grandstanding moments this week. The locker full of Time Lord message boxes. Scenes of The Doctor and Idris rattling through the vortex hanging on for dear life to their Blue Peter console. Rory, dying again but going crazily batshit bonkers before he does it this time. Nephew stalking Amy and Rory through those infinite corridors, the only illumination being from his eyes and the ever-present OodGlobe. The anti-Amy graffiti, all over the Tardis corridors (graffiti seems to be important this year. It’s all over the shop in Day of the Moon, and there’s a ton of the stuff here. Always aimed at Amy, for good or ill).
All of it wonderful to watch, obviously. But… what it comes down to – as ever, with Steven Moffat’s version of Who – is words and concepts. Dialogue and ideas. If the script is right and you get a team of totally dedicated, inspired actors to rip into it and give it everything they can to make it the best it can be, everything else will fall into place. The moments this week that made this episode sing were the little two-handers.
Amy and Rory’s time-twisting chase sequence took one of those things that people used to make jokes about Doctor Who doing and ratchetted it up several notches. This episode really did feature a hell of a lot of running up and down corridors, but boy, was it eerie and unsettling.
I can’t help but think that it ain’t just running up and down corridors for the hell of it, either. This all means something. Yet another of the Moffat themes appeared this week – abandonment and the effect it has on those left behind. We saw it with Amy and The Doctor, and Rory and Amy last year. This time Rory shows his claws a little. As he says, “I waited 2000 years for you and you did it to me again!” Poor sod. No wonder he’s been driven bonkers. Nice pickup on The Doctor and Rory’s conversation from Day of the Moon too. That pretty much clinches it – the 2000 year vigil that Rory spent – he remembers it. All of it. There’s more of this to come. Much more.
You want essence of Doctor Who? You want a Holmesian double-act of the finest vintage? You want lines that make you giggle with happiness, followed by moments that punch you right where you live? Look no further than The Doctor and Idris. Standing aside from the action in the main episode (all they’re doing is trying to get back home and stop House escaping to eat the rest of the Universe), they somehow manage to be the most important thing in the episode. How the hell does Neil Gaiman do that? To take two people talking together, hang madness off it and then somehow make it all make sense in the end? What a talent that boy is. Someone should keep an eye on him. He’ll go far.
The introduction of Idris is another one of those little throwaway moments that makes you shudder when you think about it. This woman has voluntarily sacrificed her life. She’s thrown away everything that identifies her as herself, with no hope of coming back – just because she’s been told to. That’s horrible. Really horrible, when it comes down to it. Suranne Jones leapt into Doctor Who last night, grabbed it by the scruff and didn’t let go until her final achingly poignant moments. If this doesn’t go down as one of those textbook definitive one-story performances, I don’t know what will.
It’s a part that demands a lot from an actor. Jones was more than up to it. Playing opposite our most mercurial of Doctors she keeps up with Matt Smith with ease, switching from her initial understandable fear into ear-biting frenzy, then on into mad gabbling. Except – not quite so mad. Everything she says in her first scenes turns up later on in the episode, as The Tardis tries to makes sense of everything happening slowly and in the right order. How lovely.
The Doctor nicked The Tardis, did he? Not according to her. She nicked Her Doctor, which is a head-spinner. Jones turfs the line into the mix almost casually, but it’s great – all these years, and these two have turned into something reminiscent of John Peel and John Walters – a dog and their owner, each one thinking they’re the one in charge. Sweet. Perfect.
Her fantastic spat with The Doctor in the junkyard (and there’s more of Doctor Who’s DNA, right there – we started by finding a Time Ship in a junkyard, and here’s The Doctor trying to build one out of junk) is another highlight. How many episodes of Doctor Who have you watched, and never noticed that the Doctor pushes the doors of The Tardis rather than following the “pull to open” instructions? No, I never noticed it either. I love the way Idris focusses on that as a way of getting to the heart of the conversation with The Doctor. It’s her way in, appropriately enough. The scenes between Smith and Jones (oh, very good) are like the greatest Wimbledon final you’ve ever seen. They keep volleying at each other – first one getting the upper hand, then the other. I didn’t want them to stop, ever.
Soon enough though everything is back to normal, or what passes for it. House has been evicted, and The Tardis heads back Home. Not before another moment of gold, though. How many times have we seen The Doctor cry before? The Green Death? The End of the World? He’s always in control, even as he lets a tear fall. Not this week. He’s bereft. He’s just met his soul mate, his best friend ever, and now he’s got to say goodbye all over again. Matt Smith in tears. I shouldn’t be surprised by how much it got to me, but it did. Silly old me. Silly old show.
Brief pause for this week’s shining Arthur Darvill moment. If you get the chance, watch the episode again and look at his face when he looks up from cradling Idris and says “she’s dying”. The naked pain on his face as he realises he can’t save her is real. It’s almost thrown away, but it’s there. The Doctor may be be what our hero calls himself, but Rory actually is a Doctor, to the core. Kind, good hearted, dedicated to saving lives. That he can’t manage it breaks his heart, and it’s lovely to have that just sitting there in amongst all the mayhem. Doctor Who’s always been a big, kind-hearted show. Now we have a big, kind-hearted team on board to match. Is it any wonder I love it as much as I do?
Idris dies, but not before she gets the chance to say “hello” to her Doctor for the first time. I don’t mind admitting there might well have been something in my eye at that point, but while I was brushing it away, Idris is gone, leaving another mystery in her wake. I’m assuming that stuff about River and Forests is referring to our beloved Alex Kingston but the way this series is going, who knows? We’ve got a dead hero, something playing Schrodinger’s Cat with Amy’s baby, The Doctor and River jumping totally out of sync, Eyepatch Lady and…. oh, it’s difficult to keep track of it all. So many ideas, rolling and tumbling out of your television screen on a Saturday night. As Steven said about The Pandorica Opens last year, “why does the rest of television even bother to show up?”
The Tardis may not get The Doctor to where he wants to be. As Idris says, it gets him to where he needs to be. Faulty old Tardis, my eye. She’s been operating exactly the way she should ever since the series began. Long may you continue to do so, you sexy, sexy thing.